A pair of divisional rivals coming off of impressive wins will meet up on Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Buccaneers pulled off the most shocking win of the NFL season so far, beating the Rams 55-40. They jumped out to a lead of 21-0 midway through the second quarter at the Los Angeles Coliseum but nearly choked away the victory by allowing the Rams offense to score a touchdown followed by a Jameis Winston pick-six less than a minute later.
However, the Bucs responded with a drive of more than five minutes for a field goal. They salted away the upset when Ndamukong Suh returned a fumble to the Rams’ end zone.
The Saints found another unconventional way to emerge victorious. After their special teams and defense both scored touchdowns at Seattle, no Saint managed to reach the end zone against Dallas. Nevertheless, New Orleans' defense halted possession after possession, recovering two fumbles and forcing four punts after Cowboys drives of 26 yards or less. Wil Lutz connected on all four of his field-goal attempts. Teddy Bridgewater and the rest of the offense turned over the ball just once.
The Saints lead the overall series, 33-21. For games played in New Orleans, the Saints hold an advantage of 18-11. These two franchises have faced each other twice per season starting in 2002 with the formation of the NFC South. They have split their biannual meetings over the past five seasons.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 6 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Alvin Kamara against the Buccaneers' rushing defense
The Buccaneers defense has smothered opponents’ running attacks, leading the league in fewest rushing yards allowed per attempt (2.9) and per game (59.3). They held the Rams to 28 yards on eleven carries, limiting Todd Gurley to 16 yards on five attempts. Against Tampa Bay, the Giants managed 72 yards on the ground on 19 rushes, as the Bucs stuffed Saquon Barkley for 10 yards on eight attempts. Carolina gained just 39 yards on 19 rushes with Christian McCaffrey having 16 of those attempts for 37 yards. The Buccaneers have demonstrated their aptitude to shut down some of the prolific running backs in the NFL so far.
Alvin Kamara has faced Tampa Bay four times. Last season in the first of his two meetings with the Buccaneers, he carried the ball eight times for 29 yards and no touchdowns, with nine receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown in a loss. Later in the year, he failed to score but rushed 12 times for 51 yards and caught five passes for 36 yards in a victory. In his rookie season, he rushed 10 times for 68 yards in the first meeting and nine times for 44 yards in the regular-season finale. In both games, he ran for a touchdown as well as catching six passes for 84 yards.
Can Kamara boost his rushing totals over what he has contributed in the past versus Tampa Bay?
2. Buccaneers receivers against the Saints secondary
Mike Evans has found some mixed results against the Saints during his career. Last season, he caught 11 of the 13 passes thrown to him for 233 yards and a touchdown in the two games. In 2017, he was targeted 19 times but hauled in only six of those for 68 yards with a two-point conversion as his only score. Three seasons ago, he caught 11 of the 16 passes tossed his way for 139 yards and a touchdown.
The question is whether another player can serve as a complementary receiving threat. Chris Godwin seems the most likely candidate for that role. Currently, he leads the Buccaneers in receptions (26) and receiving yards (386). He is tied with Evans for receiving touchdowns with four apiece.
The Saints have shown vulnerability to the pass. New Orleans has given up 279.3 yards per game through the air, a number exceeded by just eight other teams. The Saints have just two interceptions while opponents have completed 66 percent of their passes. They are surrendering 8.4 yards per pass attempt, which puts New Orleans in a tie for 26th in the NFL.
Can Evans, Godwin or other Buccaneers exploit the Saints' suspect secondary?
3. Saints' ability to force turnovers compared to Jameis Winston's capacity to protect the ball
One factor in the Saints' 3-1 start has been minimizing their turnovers while forcing some by their opponents. They have given the ball away only once in each game. After only three takeaways in their first three games, they forced two Dallas fumbles to short-circuit drives that had approached midfield.
Jameis Winston has shown a propensity for painful, sometimes devastating turnovers. He threw three interceptions versus San Francisco, two of which were returned for touchdowns, in a 14-point loss to the 49ers. Against the Giants, he threw an interception when the Bucs had reached New York ‘s 35-yard line in the fourth quarter and were looking to pad their three-point advantage. In Los Angeles, as the Buccaneers were nursing a 45-34 lead inside their 20-yard line, midway through the fourth quarter, he threw a pick-6.
Will the Saints be able to pressure Winston into some interceptions to halt the Buccaneers' drives or even lead to defensive scores?
Despite this being only the first Sunday of October, this is a significant matchup in the division race. With a win, the Buccaneers would hold a 2-0 record in divisional games with both victories on the road. If the Saints win, they will have sole possession of first place in the NFC South with Drew Brees only halfway through his projected recovery time.
Prediction: Saints 24, Buccaneers 20
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.